Our Nation’s Uncomfortable History With Race

As many of my readers know, I write “issue guides” — discussions of difficult public issues designed to elicit small group dialogue. In my work on such guides, sometimes I develop fragments that are useful but just don’t fit into the ultimate publication.

I came across an old passage I wrote that outlines our nation’s difficult relationship with people who are “different.” For reasons of space, it is not going to make it into a publication I am now working on, so I thought I would share it. It’s a good reminder of where we’ve been — and how far we have to go.

An Uncomfortable History

America does not have a good record when it comes to the treatment of ethnic and cultural difference. Slavery of African Americans is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind in reviewing this history. It began as early as 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia, when Africans arrived at the first English settlement in the New World. At that time there was no law yet allowing for the ownership of people as slaves, so they were instead indentured servants. In 1808, importation of slaves was officially banned, but it continued unabated — the slave population in the United States rose to 4 million slaves in the 1860 U.S. Census. Slavery ended officially with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865.

Slavery, of course, is not the only marker along the path of our nation’s poor treatment of different cultures and ethnicities.

Almost from the outset of the colonization of America, killing of the Native American Indians began. An early example is the genocidal Pequot War of 1637. Hostilities lasted in various forms throughout the westward expansion and lasted until at least 1890 when the western frontier was closed. Thousands of people were killed and whole tribes were forced to relocate as America grew. Many argue that, though the wholesale violence may have ended in 1890, the taking of Native American land and water rights, which continued for years, was just as damaging.

The Mexican-American War ended in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which held that Spanish and Mexican land grants were legitimate. But the immigration of anglo settlers brought about, according to historian Richard Vogel, “widespread oppression that sparked mass exile and repatriation. . . . Besieged refugees abandoned their farms and ranches.”

Later in the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrant labor built one of the key drivers of the settlement of the Western United States – the railroad system – but this influx of Chinese people was ended when the Chinese Exclusion Act placed a moratorium on immigration by any ethnic Chinese in 1882. This act was in force until its repeal in 1943 – at which time an annual quota of 105 was put in place. This quota was not lifted until 1965.

Anti-Semitism – hatred of Jews – has also been a part of our nation’s history. In 1915, it was the lynching by prominent area citizens of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia that led to the creation of today’s Anti-Defamation League, an organization that combats anti-Semitism.

And, during World War Two, Japanese Americans on the west coast were forced to relocate in 1942. Those who did not make their own way out — approximately 110,000 – were placed in a number of internment camps. Only in 1976 was the order establishing the camps – Executive Order 9066 – rescinded, though the camps themselves were terminated in 1946. This particular episode was viewed as so shameful that the United States made official reparations in 1988 to all who had been relocated or placed in camps.

All these share in common the taking of what may begin as a simple mistrust of difference – and, over time, turning it into a set of policies and attitudes that together work a grave injustice on one or another culture. Certainly, many newcomers to America or people who were otherwise seen as marginal had a difficult time of it. But, in some cases, this poor treatment became more than that and instead became racism.

The national story of race, then, continues. Many point with pride to the significant strides made in the Civil Rights era and to the praiseworthy expansion of opportunity over the last few decades to include more and more Americans. But others say that this issue of ethnicity and culture continues to be difficult for America — that the same trends that have played out over history are at work today.

Today, in the twenty-first century, decades after the Civil Rights Movement, against the backdrop of a citizenry that is on track to become one in which no ethnicity holds a majority, America remains a nation that has difficulty addressing racial and ethnic tensions.